FLASHBACK: Japan Thought It Would Take One Million Men 100 Years To Take This Fortified Island, But The US Marines Did It In Three Days

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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Seventy-four years ago, the U.S. Marines waged war against hardened Japanese forces across the Tarawa atoll in the Gilbert Islands and emerged victorious.

Japanese Admiral Keiji Shibasaki, commander of the highly-fortified garrison on Betio Island, was reportedly so confident in his position that he claimed it would take one million men 100 years to take control of the atoll. The U.S. Marines took it in three days, but it was, according to one historian and Business Insider, “the toughest battle in Marine Corps history.”

The Battle of Tarawa, the first target of the broader Central Pacific campaign in World War II and part of Operation Galvanic, began on Nov. 20, 1943 as 18,000 U.S. Marines stormed the beaches at Betio, Tarawa’s largest island defended by around 4,500 Japanese troops, many of which were first-rate troops, as well as mines, barbed wire, machine gun nests and pillboxes, and various heavy artillery. As Tarawa was the most fortified atoll the U.S. would invade during the Pacific campaign, the brutal battle proved to be much more difficult than U.S. troops initially expected.

Before the Marines made their assault, the Navy opened fire on the beach defenses with repeated bombardments, but the Navy warships failed to eliminate the vast majority of the Japanese defenses.

The Marines encountered numerous setbacks during the Tarawa assault, including low tides that prevented the landing craft from clearing the coral reefs. As the Japanese pounded the stranded crafts, the U.S. Marines were forced to wade over 500 yards in chest-deep water under fire to get to shore. After reaching the beach, the exhausted Marines pushed forward, engaging the elite Japanese troops in a bloody battle that resulted in the deaths of thousands on both sides.

The U.S. Marines lost around 1,000 men, and another 2,000 were wounded in the Battle of Tarawa, but the Japanese losses were far worse. After three days of intense fighting, only seventeen Japanese soldiers were left to surrender.

Admiral Shibasaki was reportedly killed on the third of the fight. Sixteen enlisted men and one officer were all that remained at first light on November 23, 1943, 76 hours after the battle began.

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